The first Iraq war veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate has announced he will introduce a bill intended to help the Veterans Administration (VA) stop the growing epidemic of suicides among U.S. combat veterans.
Sen. John Walsh (D-Montana), who led the Montana National Guard's 1st Battalion, 163rd Infantry Regiment in combat in Iraq, announced his bill in an address before the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) on March 27.
Among other measures, Sen. Walsh's bill would:
- Extend combat veterans' eligibility for VA health care to 15 years from the current 5-year limit;
- Seek to increase the number of mental health care professionals at VA facilities by repaying medical school loans for psychiatrists who commit to long-term service in the VA;
- Require the VA to review the health care benefit eligibility of combat soldiers who may have been wrongfully discharged because of behavior related to post-traumatic stress syndrome; and
- Require the VA and Department of Defense to ensure that VA mental health care providers have special training to identify veterans at-risk for suicide.
"We thank Senator Walsh for being the first Congressional leader to step up and sponsor historic, comprehensive legislation to combat suicide in the veteran community," said IAVA CEO Paul Rieckhoff in a press release. "Senator Walsh's bill, when passed, will ensure that our servicemen and women will have ready access to top quality mental health care and will take steps to streamline the problem that plagued communication and systems between the Department of Defense and the VA."
A VA study released last year showed that while fewer than 25% of all combat veterans are enrolled in the VA health care system, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide every day.
"We're leaving our veterans to fight their toughest battles alone, and the crisis of veteran suicide now claims 22 of our finest men and women every single day," Walsh said in a press release. "Returning home from combat does not erase what happened there, and yet red tape and government dysfunction have blocked access to the care that saves lives. It is our duty to come together for real solutions for our heroes."
One of those veterans who committed suicide was a corporal who served under Walsh in Iraq.
"This is a personal issue for me," Walsh told the IAVA. "We've waited too long to take action on this issue. We need to work together to solve the problem."